Superior 100 Mile 2016 Race Report
by Cole Peyton
"You never know what is going to happen in an Ultra."
I have heard this many times from other runners and said it myself on occasion when my stomach didn't cooperate or my IT band solidified. If I had previously only dipped my toe into understanding what those words mean, at a minimum I dunked my whole leg in at the Superior 100.
Finishing the Voyageur 50 mile strongly six weeks prior despite a workout-worn body, I was more sure than ever that I was ready for Superior. But I was ready then and six weeks felt like an eternity. I was peaking too early.
Sure enough, three weeks later and out on a routine ten miler on a beautiful Sunday morning in Hyland Park, I was running down a small hill when I felt a sharp pain in the side of my knee and I pulled up lame. I rested, iced, stretched, rolled, strengthened, saw doctors - anything to get it to go away. It was Runner's Knee with pain that came on with exercise, moved around and only tightened more with use.
With only days before the race I debated whether to toe the line at Superior at all. I talked at length to my crew and pacers Sam Lezon and Brandon Gustafson (Gus) to explain to them the possibility that I may not make it past 10 or 20 miles, and to give them a chance to pull out and not waste their time, no hard feelings. Neither would even consider it - and frankly I think Sam was actually excited about the opportunity to see how many different tape jobs, chiropractic maneuvers, mental blackmails and other undisclosed tricks he could employ to keep me moving along the course.
"Let's lock this b**** down so I can forget about it."
Out of bed at 5:15am the morning of the race, I laid down on the ground of our hotel for Sam to kinesio tape my knee in as many ways as possible. The goal was to unload the tendons in my leg, keep the Patella tracking straight, and to hug the knee with gentle soothing pressure. Sam brought an industrial-sized package of RockTape that retails for somewhere in the low four digits USD. On the bus at 6am for the hour-long bus ride to the start line when I realized that I had forgotten my Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich in the microwave. But I wasn't too concerned because with my pre-race nerves nothing looked appetizing and I was having trouble getting anything into my stomach - including my turkey Lunchables which have become a pre-Ultra staple for me. Nonetheless, Becky McCathie came flying up the stairs and down the aisle with my Jimmy Dean in hand after tracking me down across multiple busses - it was a nice pleasant surprise and I forced myself to eat half of it during the hour ride as a subconscious thanks.
Body Glide applied, bathroom visited and packs filled, Travis McCathie and I headed to the line for the 8am start with smiling faces. You have never seen a group of runners start a race with such little hurry in their steps. Due to ongoing work on the Superior Hiking Trail the first four miles from Gooseberry Falls north were actually on paved trail - giving runners a chance to spread out and find their pace before starting 99 miles of single track. That freedom from getting caught with the wrong pace group combined with the understanding that we would be running for the next 30+ hours gave way to a very relaxed and almost Zen-like start to the race. At least for those of us in the middle to back of the pack.
The first ten miles of the race were typical, beautiful, runnable northern Minnesota single track. I did my best to distract myself and only think about my knee every two to three seconds, instead of every second. At any second I felt it would tighten and hurt and I would be finished shortly thereafter. Three miles into the single track I felt the distinct and sharp pain of a bee sting on the back of my right quad. The race director John Storkamp had warned us the night before that ground nests were present on the trail but ever the optimist, I just never thought it will be me that would be stung. Anyway it served as a reprieve from the stream of consciousness about my knee and I knew the flesh wounds would be the least of my concerns.
After Split Rock (9.7), the second section was much of the same with largely runnable downhills and reasonable uphills. This time the bee stings came in bunches - approximately 5 I estimated, all over the backs of my legs. I arrived at Beaver Bay (20.1) right on track for the 34 hour mark that I had tentatively set as a goal before my knee issue arose. This was the first aid station where I could see Sam and he greeted me with a smile, happy to see my jogging it in. Like the dugout when a pitcher on a no-hitter sits down, Sam refrained from even mentioning my knee and instead focused on getting some calories and liquids in me. You would have thought he was a chubby chaser the way he attempted to force feed me at every aid station.
It was only 4.9 miles to Silver Bay (25.0) but the sun had gone vertical and even 75 degrees felt quite hot on the exposed rock. With almost 1,000ft of sharp elevation gain and loss in that section we got our first taste of what Superior had in store. But the worst of it was that my knee was starting to get tight and dare I say hurt. For 25 miles I had allowed the thought of going a long way to creep into my mind and now my greatest fear was hitting just as I knew in my heart it would.
"Make it to Gus and you guys can hike it in from there."
This was the first sense that I had that Sam was not going to let me quit this thing easily. He knew my knee was starting to become an issue but he had heard from others at the aid stations that it was possible to finish by power hiking the last 60 miles of the race. I downed 3oz of pickle slurry (pickles + pickle juice pureed ) and started to head out. Sam chased after me, shoving M&Ms and Fig Newtons in my Camelbak despite my calls of "Rape!" which when unheeded by onlookers. I didn't want any more food. I felt like I was going to be dropping and eating like I wasn't felt like a lie.
At mile 30 I mentally quit the race. It's 9.9 miles from Silver Bay to Tettagouche and a runner passing me casually mentioned that we were only "halfway there!". I would have sworn we had run 10 miles already. The hills were brutal on my ever-more-painful knee to the point that I had stopped running completely and the steeper descents took me agonizing minutes to descend. I was leaning heavily on my other (left) leg and I think subconsciously I had been doing so for the last 30 miles as well. Kurt, a fellow runner I had run with and talked to at length at Voyageur, was one of over thirty runners who passed me running and looking great during this section. It was beyond demoralizing to see others doing what I wanted so badly to do as well.
My body was willing, my fitness was willing, my heart was willing. Everything in me wanted to run, run far, run fast. But my knee would not let me.
After what seemed like an eternity and one more bee sting (7 total now) I rolled into Tettagouche (34.9) with what could only be described as a frown on my face. I was completely at peace with quitting the race; I had given it a very good effort and my knee was only getting worse.
Sam wasn't happy at all with that assessment - he hadn't even gotten a chance to reach into his bag of tricks! He sat me down in a chair and immediately went to work on me both physically and mentally. Yanking on my leg, pressing his entire body weight into my hip, stripping off tape and reapplying a completely different configuration, and chattering on about our strategy for the rest of the race. I watched as runner after runner quit and walked out of the aid station before my eyes. What seemed so early in the race. Sam said, "Go to the next aid station and we'll talk there." I stood up, looked him in the eye and said,
"If I go to the next aid station and I say I want to drop, will you let me?"
"Yes", he said. And before I had another second to think about it I ran out of the aid station and onto the trail. Only two miles later when it began to get dark did I realize what a terrible mistake my storming out had been. I forgot my headlamp and it would be pitch dark for five miles until I got to the next aid station. Surely I was cooked. I told two other runners that I was going to stay right behind them for the next six miles so I could at least see a shadow of another runner. Suddenly, Timothy Owata called out behind me, "Hey, I have an extra headlamp in my pack." Oh. My. God. Tim was my lord and savior. Thank you, Tim.
I still wasn't able to run, but the pain in my right knee generally subsided and began to be replaced by other new and novel bodily pains. Sam 1 - Superior 0. I rolled into County Road 6 (43.5) at 9:18pm and Gus was waiting for me to start the accompanied portion of my journey. Several cups of hot ramen and Coca Cola and we were ready to go.
The section to Finland (51.2) is a blur in my mind as Gus and I spent the time talking. In hindsight I think we gave up some time not hiking with more urgency but I still couldn't imagine finishing and time did not feel as scarce as it later would. At Finland I wolfed down two hot dogs and more soup and we quickly got back on the trail.
The next 7.5 miles to Sonju Lake Rd (58.7) were relatively easy hiking but I began to pick up the pace, leaning forward and striding as long as fast as I could with every step without ever taking flight. It was during this section that the lightning started to strike and the rain began to fall. At first it felt harmless as we had jackets and some tree cover but it slowly built to the point that we were getting soaked and the trail was starting to get sloppy.
We spent as little time at Sonju Lake as possible since crews aren't allowed there and pushed on to Crosby, just 4.2 miles ahead. Now the rain was falling in sheets, the temperature was still dropping (it reached 52), and the trail was awash with standing water. Still, we hiked with purpose and did not see even a single other runner.
It was about this time that I offhandedly asked Gus, "can you drive a stick?" "Um, no!" he responded exasperatedly. We realized that once it was Sam's turn to take over pacing Gus would have no way to take the car to the next aid station! The only logical solution in my mind was to teach him how to drive a manual transmission then and there as we ran through the remote forest in a heavy downpour in the middle of the night. As I explained the intricacies of using the clutch and gears, Gus seemed to understand but I knew that first solo drive was going to be a doozie.
"That was like pushing a cantaloupe through a PVC pipe."
Crosby Manitou (62.9) is a notorious drop point because things are often going wrong for runners when they arrive and the following section is the most difficult on the entire course. I uttered the above quote after using an actual toilet for the first time in 24 hours - ultra runners are notoriously shameless about bodily functions. In the brief moments that I sat down I was shivering uncontrollably. Gus and I tracked down some garbage bags, tore some holes in them and put them on to try and keep some semblance of dryness in the clothes we just put on. Seeing no point in staying and shivering we decided to push on in the wet dark and keep moving.
At this point my left knee was starting to get bad - it was stereotypical Patellar Tendinopathy. Used it too much and now it was screaming to stop using it more. But the first 3 miles of Crosby were sadistic and unrelenting. Constant steep downhills that were barely walkable under normal conditions were excruciating and slow for me. But the sun was just starting to come up and right on cue the rain slowly dissipated. A new day was upon us and I had the stretch of daylight to go 40 miles. The rain had turned the single track into what I called at the time a mud-slopped sh**-chute. A luge track made entirely of ankle-deep mud.
With negative thoughts streaming out our mouths, Gus and I pulled into Sugarloaf (72.3) exhausted from a section that under normal circumstances would have been at least partially runnable. In addition to my knee, at some point my left ankle had also rolled and was tightening slowly but surely.
I collapsed into a chair and ate whatever people handed me. I changed my socks and confronted the fact that my feet were starting to blister significantly. It was about this time that we started to realize that time was short and we would need to start pushing the pace. Sam and I took off on what I knew was going to be an easy section since I had run it two months ago in a training run. Sam convinced me to try and run but every time I did my knee hurt more than I was comfortable maintaining and once I returned to walking would continue to hurt as well. So we power hiked the 5.6 miles to Cramer Road (77.9). Energized by new socks, less clothes, a new energetic pacer and an easy (albeit uphill) section, we did the section in sub-20's.
We debated the likelihood that Gus would be waiting for us at Cramer after his first foray with a manual automobile. And at first he was nowhere to be found, but soon after we arrived he came huffing it up the road with all the crew supply bags in tow, only a little worse for the wear after killing the engine several times. Sam and I wasted no time and immediately left for the long 7.1 mile section to Temperance River.
Sam continued to push me and I strided with all my energy, pushing the pace as much as I could. The section was beautiful as we meandered along the Cross River and started to see other signs of life, passing campgrounds and campers diving off waterfalls. The section seemed to drag on and on though, until we encountered what I can only describe as a Grim Harbinger. He called out from the side of the trail:
"It's all downhill from here!"
That was the worst possible news masquerading as good news. My knee was screaming at me on every downhill. What the Harbinger described as a short easy jaunt in turned out to be a full mile of steep, technical, slow, painful descent.
We limped into Temperance River (85.0) at 3:16pm and I wanted nothing more than to sit down on the ground. My wife Meghan was there waiting for me - after racing up from the Twin Cities to try and catch the end of my run. But I had no energy to greet her. I plopped my butt down in the middle of the gravel road and decided I was done. There were 18 miles still to go and we only had 6:46 in which to do them. I knew we had no chance - I wasn't moving fast enough and the last 18 miles are the toughest and hilliest of all.
"What's the point?"
I asked Meghan. I can't finish in time, why keep pushing? "The point is to go as far as you can go. You can go farther." I was so mad at the futility of the situation. Another gentleman said, "I ran this section earlier this morning, it's all flat for the first five miles!" I knew he was lying but I grabbed a handful of white birthday cake with white frosting (and I think two of the frosting clown's balloons), and headed for the trail without saying anything to anyone. Sam came huffing up from behind a quarter of a mile down the trail, stating "Man, you flew out of there!".
The next mile was a slight downhill, and the next mile after that was a slight uphill. But that's where any semblance of "flat" ended for the rest of the race. Sections were "flat" only in the sense that they were a consistent angle, either up or down, for long stretches at a time.
We knew that to finish the race we were going to need to push every single moment of the remainder of the race. I pretended in my mind that Sawbill was the finish line. We climbed Carlton Peak at a pace so fast that I struggle to even find words for our effort. We hiked the steep rocky outcrops like our legs were fresh and there was a pretty girl at the top.
"This is suicide."
I knew our pace was suicide. You can't push to your limit, then keep pushing at that effort for 6 hours. Can you? My knee hurt more with every step, my ankle had morphed from tightness to pain, and my feet were literally splitting at the seams. Can my body sustain this kind of pain and keep pushing for hours on end? It was too much to even consider - I just kept pretending the next aid station was the finish line.
The volunteers at Sawbill (90.7) were outstanding. In fact they were all day. Again, Gus and Meghan were there and cracked open a Red Bull for me in addition to refilling my pack. Travis and Becky were also there - I felt like the whole world was trying to bring me home. But there was no time to waste - every aid station we drew closer and closer to the cutoff time for that distance.
Meghan jumped in to pace me for the next 5.5 miles. We quickly gained a following of three or four 50 mile runners who were looking to get in under the cutoff as well. I was like the Pied Piper speed walking the technical trails with my legion of loyal followers, clipping off 18 minute miles up and down the rolling hills. It quickly became public knowledge on the trails that the cutoff at Oberg was 7:00pm and we were cutting it close. If I was red-lining it before, then I was pushing the needle off the odometer for the last two miles of the section. I could feel my blisters developing and popping between my toes as I strided longer and longer. Meghan chimed in with lighthearted comments but never for a second let my pace lag.
In the end we flew into Oberg Mountain (96.2) at 6:57pm, three minutes before the cutoff. But that cutoff isn't the arrival time, it's the departure time. There was no time for sitting, no time for eating, no time for whining. My crew handed me another Red Bull (my 4th), two Fig Newtons and my headlamp and pushed me up the hill.
The final section is 7.1 miles of climbing and descending Moose Mountain and Mystery Mountain. It was once again nighttime and the only mystery was how long the hills could possibly keep going. We could only see 150 feet ahead of us at any time, but that 150 feet never seemed to reach the top of the climb.
"That was a little slow, you need to pick it up."
Gus was absolutely relentless in pushing me harder and faster. He talked more than an auctioneer for almost three hours as I grunted, groaned, and whimpered. "Those three steps were a little slow", "watch out for that stump", "a little muddy section coming up", "you can do it". The commentary never ended but I was never wont for inspiration.
We passed more than ten runners in the final section, mostly 50 mile runners, many of which it seemed weren't moving fast enough to make the 10pm cutoff. I had been moving for 37 hours straight but my focus was never sharper. I hadn't allowed myself to envision the finish line the entire race because it never seemed in reach, but I could finally taste it now. And once the sound of the Poplar River came into earshot, I could feel it in my bones.
"Is that Cole Peyton?!?!"
All of the people who had helped me over the past two days were strung along the finishing section. Sam joined Gus and me in the final section. Becky shrieked with joy at the site my mangled body cantering up the hill toward the finish line. Meghan was standing at the finish line waiting with camera in hand to capture the moment and catch me if I collapsed. Travis and tons of other runners surrounded the finish to cheer us latecomers in. The official time was 37:42:00. Just 18 minutes to spare under the cutoff.
It was raucous and surreal. Someone perusing the results might easily assume that those finishing just under the wire did the bare minimum to finish the race. But it could not have been more the exact opposite. I gave more than body wanted to allow me to achieve a moment of glory. I found my limits, then I expanded them. Over and over again.
Without Sam and Gus I never would have finished. They deserved to cross the line just as much as I did because they gave me their all just as I gave the course mine. And that is what Superior demands - everything you have and then some that you don't. Rugged, Relentless, Remote. It showed me that even at my worst I have what it takes. I can't wait to see what I have at my best.